Catterina Vizzani was born in Rome to a carpenter’s family. At age 14 she fell in love with a girl who was teaching her embroidery. Catterina would dress in men’s clothes and visit the girl’s window at night. Their relationship lasted for over two years, until the girl’s father found out and threatened to turn Catterina over to the courts.
Catterina left Rome, dressed in men’s clothes, taking the name Giovanni Bordoni. With the help of a priest, he got work as a vicar’s servant in Perugia. The Vicar was an austere man and complained of Giovanni “incessantly following the Wenches, and being so barefaced and insatiable in [his] Amours.” It was rumored that Giovanni was the best seducer of women in that part of the country. This reputation did not make the vicar happy, and he complained to the priest who had recommended Giovanni. The priest wrote to Giovanni’s parents, who in turn told the priest everything. After learning the truth, the priest decided to keep Giovanni’s secret.
After four years with the vicar, Giovanni left Perugia for Monte Pulciano where he fell in love with the niece of the local minister. The minister was very protective of his niece, so the couple planned to secretly travel to Rome in order to be married. This plan was found out, and they were intercepted on their journey. During his attempt to surrender Giovanni was shot in the left thigh, four inches above his knee.
In the hospital, suffering from gangrene, Giovanni’s wound grew so painful that he was forced to remove the “leathern contrivance” (that was fastened just below the abdomen) and hide it under his pillow. On his death bed he revealed to a nun that he was female and a virgin and requested the ceremonial burial given to virgins. The body was laid out in the proper habit of a woman, with the virginal garland on the head and flowers strewn about the clothes.
A surgeon and professor of anatomy at Sienna, Giovanni Bianchi, dissected the body in an attempt to find an explanation for “those who followed the practices of Sappho.” He examined it extensively, including removing and dissecting the hymen, clitoris, fallopian tubes, intestines, colon, gall bladder and liver, finding everything in its “natural state.”
Catterina/Giovanni’s funeral procession was extremely popular, people flocked from all parts of the city to get a view of the corpse. There were even attempts at canonization.
Bianchi, Giovanni. The true history and adventures of Catharine Vizzani, a young gentlewoman a native of Rome, who for many years past in the habit of a man; was killed for an amour with a young lady; and found on dissection, a true virgin. With curious anatomical remarks on the Nature and Existence of the Hymen. By Giovanni Bianchi, Professor of Anatomy at Sienna, the Surgeon who dissected her. With a curious frontispiece. London, 1755. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. Boston College. 22 April 2012.
Norton, Rictor ed. “The Case of Catherine Vizzani, 1755”, Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 1 December 2005.